A Healthy Blog

Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

Public Health Council Accedes to Federal Restaurant Calorie Labeling Requirement

Public Health Council Accedes to Federal Restaurant Calorie Labeling Requirement

June 15, 2010

We've always been proud of Massachusetts exceptionalism. As a long-time national leader in public health and health access, we often insist on going first, pushing the boundary to make advances in health policy. Massachusetts acts as a test bed for health policy, with national policy catching up later.

Another example of that played out last week, as DPH's Public Health Council met last Wednesday to discuss new regulations pertaining to food establishments, biomedical waste, and collaborative drug therapy management. The Council also heard a presentation on the status and progress of public hospitals.

In 2009, Massachusetts (along with NY and CA) adopted regulations requiring chain restaurants and vending machine operators to display calorie information for each product. Evidence shows that providing consumers with good information leads to more informed choices.

A similar provision was included this year in the national reform bill. However, the Massachusetts regulation also required that a licensed dietitian or nutritionist approve the information to ensure accuracy. Because language in the federal law requires the national laws to replace any similar existing state laws, Massachusetts will have to backtrack slightly to adopt less robust reform. The Public Health Council therefore voted to rescind the state’s adopted regulations and will wait for the federal regulations to be released later this year. The national bill only requires that establishments have a “reasonable basis” (i.e. derived from cookbooks or an online database) for numbers published. Fortunately, this is a step in the right direction to encourage healthier eating on a national level. Unfortunately, it’s a slight step backwards for the progress that Massachusetts has made.

Yet, a forward step in the same field was taken when the Council voted to implement a regulation requiring food establishments to post a food allergen awareness poster in a staff area and to also post a notice in menus that instructs customers with a food allergy to inform the server. The Department of Public Health must also develop and distribute a training video for restaurant staff members to increase awareness of food allergies.

The Council also heard an informative presentation on various programs in four public hospitals that serve special health care needs of the most vulnerable patients in the Commonwealth: Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, Tewksbury Hospital in Tewksbury, Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, and Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield. Many patients seek behavioral and medical care in these facilities as a last resort after rejection from private facilities or have conditions too complex for effective treatment in private facilities or nursing homes. Treatment success rates were reported high and so were cost savings compared to their private sector counterparts. When a Council member asked a Chief Executive Officer about the cost-savings methods at her hospital, she replied, “It’s amazing what we can do with very few resources.”

Other issues addressed:

  • The Council voted to postpone for two years the enactment of a provision to establish minimum safety requirements for the disposal of medical or biological waste. Some communities provide no protection against exposure to used needles and other sharps that may be thrown directly into the trash. The purpose of this act is to provide minimum requirements for the storage, treatment, disposal and transportation of medical or biological waste, but there is currently inadequate funding to fulfill the requirements of the law.
  • The Council voted to implement a collaborative drug therapy management regulation to allow pharmacists, with consent of physician and patient, to collaborate with physicians in managing patient drug therapy. The purpose of this law is to improve patient care and safety by increasing medication adherence, reducing medication errors, and promoting more efficient health care delivery through teamwork.

-Elizabeth Arnold